Cannabis experts lash out at ministers for ignoring advice

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Indy Politics

An angry row has blown up over proposals to upgrade cannabis to a class B drug, with leading experts from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) accusing the Government of a "deliberate leak" of its plans.

Ignoring a directive not to speak to journalists about reports that the Government has already made its mind up, ACMD member Professor Les Iversen, a pharmacologist at Oxford University, said: "I was not pleased to read what appears to be a deliberate leak about the government's alleged intention to reclassify, regardless of advice received.

"If ACMD were to recommend no change and this were to happen, I believe it would be the first time that any Home Secretary acted against the recommendations offered and it would call into question the whole function and future of this group."

The outburst followed claims that Gordon Brown and the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, were determined to reverse the decision to downgrade the drug to class C when the ACMD completes its report in the next few months. Although its recommendations are not yet known, ministers are already making clear that Ms Smith is prepared to overrule the expert body.

But one former member of the influential council last night claimed the ACMD was totally opposed to the Government's stance. "There is no way that the ACMD would support any reclassification of cannabis, unless there were some political shenanigans going on," said the Reverend Martin Blakeborough.

Rev Blakeborough, who runs the Kaleidoscope drug abuse charity, said: "There is no significantly new evidence to suggest that cannabis is any more harmful than in the last review we did 18 months ago."

"The only reason that the ACMD is being forced to discuss this matter is because every new Home Secretary seems to want to show how tough they are," he added.

Professor David Nutt, chair of the ACMD's technical committee, which will start taking evidence on classification at a public meeting next month, said: "In the end, as with all laws, it's a political decision – the ACMD only advises."

But David Raynes, of the National Drug Prevention Alliance, criticised the ACMD's stance and said that it was dominated by people who advocate "harm reduction" and whose sympathies lie with pro-legalisation campaigners: "I actually think that the harm reduction/liberalisation/legalisation lobby is too strong in there (and in the Home Office). Some ACMD members are genuine but misguided, some are just the great and good with little understanding of the legalisation game that is being played by others."

The controversy comes days after new figures revealed that almost 500 people are being treated by the NHS every week for cannabis-related mental health problems. Since the Government downgraded it from a class B to a class C drug in 2004, the number of adults being treated for its effects has risen from 11,057 in 2004-05 to 16,685 in 2006-07. Also, the number of children needing medical attention because of cannabis use has increased to more than 9,200 – up from 8,014 in 2005-06.

Fears over the hidden health risks of the drug, particularly on the mental health of young people, have prompted the calls for a review of cannabis. More than 2.5 million 16-24 year-olds have used the drug. The ACMD is expected to make its own recommendations known in April.

In a statement, a Home Office spokesman reiterated that the ACMD's role is confined to providing "advice on classification".

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